Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can guess a few things about people based on their favorite books. On their way into Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle to see The Book Club Play, patrons are asked to stop and write the name of a book on a self-adhesive label. Opportunities for amateur sociology abound: Does that woman really love A Clockwork Orange, or does it just match her scarf? Does the hipster with the bowler hat and the Catcher in the Rye sticker secretly read John Sandford? On press night, a few brave souls walked around with “The Bible” on their chests, but Jesus freaks were far less plentiful than Jane Austen’s hapless romantics.
It was an entertaining exercise in human stereotyping. So is the play.
Local playwright Karen Zacarías has done some serious reworking of the show, which premiered at Round House Theatre in 2008. It’s still an over-the-top, overly self-aware sendup of book-club culture, and—still being a play about a book club that’s being filmed for a documentary about book clubs—it’s more of a metanarrative than ever. Only now, instead of grad students as the voyeurs behind the camera, it’s Lars Knudsen, a (fictional) Danish documentarian.
Our hostess is Ana Smith, a newspaper columnist and archetypal literature snob (Twilight is the end of civilization, etc.); Kate Eastwood Norris makes her Arena debut in the role. If you live in Washington and are reading this review, you probably know the kind of bibliophiles that her character invites into her neutral-toned living room. There’s Jen (Ashlie Atkinson), a pudgy paralegal still searching for her Heathcliff, though a Mr. Darcy would probably do; Lily (Rachael Holmes), who sports a spiky ’fro and leather pants; and Alex (Fred Arsenault), the sort of literature professor who wouldn’t know a New York Times bestseller if a bitter ex-fiancée threw one in his face.
And then there’s Will (Tom Story), the closeted gay museum curator. Don’t know a closeted museum curator? A coming-out story is part of the predictable, tongue-and-cheek plot. Still, there can be humor in the obvious, and Zacarías’ script has plenty of it. Cue the phallic Moby Dick jokes.
Snippets from the finished mock documentary, created by the talented real-life filmmaker Adam Larsen, serve as segues between scenes, so there are few surprises in the show. If the stock characters don’t clue you in to what’s coming, the film clips leave little doubt. The only character who seems out of place in a D.C. book club, or any book club, is Rob (Eric Messner), Ana’s jockish husband, who’s just there for the food, not to meet chicks.
The ensemble members, directed by Molly Smith, play to stereotype well. Only Norris fails to elicit empathy, but she’s got the most cloying character to play. Toward the end of the play, Jen levels a staunch criticism at Ana’s autobiographical novel: It’s populated with real people, not characters. In this play more than most, the opposite is true.